2016’s anomalous La La Land succeeded due in large part to its precision in toeing the line between society’s longing for nostalgia and its need for presently relevant art. By conjuring the cinematic magic of a Hollywood now only found in re-viewings of classics such as Singin’ in the Rain, Damien Chazelle truly transported us and displayed the most excellent components of the musical film era. But setting the film in the present with everyday people struggling through everyday issues gave the film the modern relevance that will make the film timeless. This delicate balance so exquisitely struck by La La Land is the balance that newcomer art pop outfit Midnight Sister hopes to find on their debut release Saturn Over Sunset.
The duo is composed of oddball filmmaker Juliana Giraffe providing lyrics and vocals and the classically trained Ari Balouzian whose prior work has mostly been in string arrangement. The two pop novices based in the San Fernando Valley boldly dive into the format for the first time, bringing to mind Andy Warhol’s experiment with the Velvet Underground (except that they actually play, write, and produce the music). The Velvet Underground comparison is an appropriate one as the duo evoke the period of late ‘60s/early ‘70s psychedelic art pop pioneered by Lou Reed and company. And Giraffe’s sweet, lullaby-like vocals fit right into the period like a cross-section between Nico and Karen Carpenter.
The sounds, the arrangements, the production—everything on this project brings the listener back to that time of flourishing Los Angeles music. And yet there are still moments that ground us back in our present time and place. The opening “Canary”, equal parts dreamy lullaby and nightmare, combines past and present with its digital discord layered over scattered jazz drum soloing. And the ominous, rattling synths of “The Crow” are not dissimilar to something off of Yeezus.
Perhaps more than anything, the bouncy Wurlitzers and “Strawberry Fields” Mellotrons firmly fix Midnight Sister’s nostalgia-pop sound alongside contemporaries like Foxygen and Weyes Blood. Both can be heard on the slinky “Blue Cigar”, with Giraffe sensuously whispering “Every place I go / Ya trancin’ in my zone / Every time I try / I’m dancin’ to a T. Rex song.” “Shimmy” continues the glitzy nightclub persona of Midnight Sister with its funky bass lines and disco beats. The cabaret “Showgirl” also fits the retro Sunset Boulevard scenery while also giving Balouzian an opportunity to boast his arrangement aptitude on a string interlude that whirls like a swarm of bees tossed in a tornado.
The orchestral performances are a highlight on many other tracks from the instrumental “View From Gilligan’s Island” to the lo-fi baroque pop closer “Their Eyes” on which Giraffe opens, “I don’t blame you for being broken / They don’t see shadows like you do / What a shame it is / To have fears that are ten feet tall.” It’s that brokenness and fear people experience that urges them toward nostalgia, toward yearning for something other than the present. That’s what Midnight Sister has provided on this debut: an opportunity to hear “the ghosts who whisper” from the past and to dream in the face of fear, whether that be fear caused by natural disaster as on “The Drought” or whatever the case may be.
Dreaming is a theme that runs through much of the album, like the film La La Land. On “Showgirl”, the narrator’s mother tells her, “If you count the sheep / You’ll fall asleep / Now I’ll leave you / With nothing to do / But dream.” But also like the film, Midnight Sister also urge the listener to live and dance in the present on “Shimmy”: “When we’re alive we will go to disco / Share that groove with me, man / To move to sound / The sound is now.” Though thoroughly steeped in the ‘60s and ‘70s music that influences them, Midnight Sister’s sound is indeed now—a timeless effort for the duo’s first time together.
// Sound Affects
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